Here's what you need to know...
- The ultimate Paleo diet for lifters is a caveman-based diet with the re-introduction of a few starchy carbs and workout nutrition to support weight training.
- There's no such thing as an essential carbohydrate, but tell that to the guy who's combining high amounts of anaerobic training with no carbs and whose ding-dong has been lifeless for a year.
- The anaerobic energy production pathway runs on glucose/carbs. High intensity muscular contractions require glucose.
- The true value of an ancestral approach to nutrition is what it cuts from the average person's diet.
Let's make this simple. The optimal eating approach for merging health with performance and physique enhancement is to follow a caveman-based diet – animal proteins and veggies, no junk – with the re-introduction of a select few starchy carbs and peri-workout nutrition to support weight training. That's it.
It's a revamping of the classic "don't eat crap, adjust the macronutrients to the demands of your modern sport" nutrition plan. And while the mainstream is starting to catch on, as evidenced by the legions of new paleo converts who ponder whether a caveman would've had access to rice cakes or quinoa, the dust is far from settled. Many office workers still follow high-carb diets better suited to athletes, and many strength trainers follow no-carb diets better suited for sedentary populations.
The principle of specificity has been lost in the dogma-thumping, and people across the board are as confused as hell.
What's lost in all of the intellectual pontification and academic posturing is what should be the true goal of any educator – giving people simple, effective, actionable strategies that will help them produce results in the real world.
So let's allow the gurus to hash it out for dietary supremacy. You should focus on finding the most efficient path given your individual situation and goals.
The Paleo Way
The caveman theme is a simple theme. It works for practically everyone, from advanced athletes who have been information-overloaded by the fitness industry, down to complete beginners who don't know (or care) much about nutrition and need a simple approach to get started.
Paleo simplifies the overcomplicated and gives people actionable steps, instead of being frozen with "paralysis by analysis" listening to scientific debate. Cut out refined garbage and eat more plants and animals. I bet that will take 90% of people 90% of the way.
Paleo calls bullshit on much of the "health" industry that preys on uninformed consumers. Organic crap is still crap. Gluten-free crap is still crap. Organic, gluten-free cookies are still cookies, and are not that great for your health or body composition goals. Wild salmon and spinach are gluten free as well.
But apparently, in some elitist athletic and academic circles, you can't even say the world "paleo" or "caveman." Doing so would make you appear less cutting-edge or advanced, and certainly wouldn't grant you access to the V.I.P. parties where everyone circle jerks over their credentials. So we have flowery language, unnecessarily technical diet strategies, and obsession over minutia. Aren't you more interested in getting shit done?
While the science behind them is crazy complex and could take a lifetime to fully master, the most effective diet and training programs are the simplest ones on paper.
Crap-Loading and Other Crap
Diet numbers are the most important variable to get right for physique results, so if that's all you really care about (that's all I cared about when I was 20, too), then crapload away: eat whatever junk food you want. But that doesn't necessarily merge your physique goals with long-term health enhancement.
Take it from someone who has worked with clients of all ages and former athletes who have messed themselves up with uninformed or extreme methods. It's the cumulative effects of your diet over a lifetime that matter, not any 10-week timeframe. Serge Nubret once said, "Every sickness comes from food." I think genetics and environment also play a part, but food is the thing you can fully control.
Beyond theory, marketing material, "study wars," and pointing to that one genetically gifted guy who can pull it off, you can't tell me that when you step back from it all and just use pure common sense that you think shit-loading every day can be good for your long-term health.
There are many athletes that look great on the outside but are train wrecks internally. They're extremely unhealthy and dealing with side effects such as sleep disturbances, depression, elevated disease risk factors, metabolic damage, and digestive disorders. Ever wonder why there are so many dicks in the fitness industry? Maybe that's part of it.
Like it or not, food choices are important for optimizing overall health. If you still want to eat pizza and Pop Tarts every day, be my guest.
Low Carb Is for Couch Potatoes
The paleo approach certainly isn't the only way, and it's definitely not the only method I use, but it's effective for certain demographics.
A sedentary person isn't exercising and burning through muscle glycogen stores (300-500 grams), so he doesn't need to worry about replenishing them on a daily basis. High-carbohydrate diets (300 grams or more) are more appropriate for athletes and regular exercisers that undergo the cyclical depletion and repletion of muscle glycogen stores.
Sedentary populations really only need to worry about providing adequate carbohydrates to support liver glycogen stores, which regulate normal blood sugar levels and fuel the brain and central nervous system at rest. This can be accomplished with roughly 100 grams of carbs a day. You don't have to memorize any of that; just remember that athletes and lifters can handle a lot more carbs than office workers.
That's why research shows that lower carb, caveman-style diets may be the best approach for improving body composition and biomarkers of health for obese, insulin resistant, and sedentary populations.
Take Home Message
If you're severely overweight, insulin resistant, and/or sedentary, a paleo-style diet may be the best approach for you at this time. Get in a calorie deficit mode, eat adequate protein, get roughly 100 grams of carbs from vegetables and whole fruit, and make up the rest of your calories from healthy fats.
Where All The Cults Go Wrong
Let's talk about the paleo diet in terms of its most generally accepted, well-known version – the low-carb, higher protein and fat version (eat animal protein, non-starchy vegetables, whole fruits, and healthy fats).
There's no single "paleo" diet, and food choices and macronutrient percentages vary among time periods and regions (Inuit versus Kitavan, etc.). I know that's not really fair to the whole paleo movement, but this article is about simplifying and giving people actionable strategies, and putting it in terms they know.
The problem occurs when any nutritional approach becomes a religious-like cult – rabid teachers preaching it as the only way with no possible modifications based on individual goals; hardcore followers condemning all other methods; brainwashed students that may be inhibiting their progress or even doing themselves harm by dogmatically adhering to the tenets of an inflexible system, instilling fear that if a starchy carb ever touches your lips, the wrath of the four winds is going to swoop down and destroy your village.
You'll never convince me that a 300-pound, obese, insulin resistant, sedentary office worker trying to save his life should be eating the same thing as a regular exerciser or athlete that wants to reach peak physical condition. Yet that's what you have to believe if you buy into the dogmatic adherence to a one-size-fits-all "system." Cookie-cutting only works in the cookie-making business.
The true value of a caveman or ancestral approach to nutrition is what it cuts from the average person's diet – high-fructose corn syrup and table sugar, trans fats, high n-6 vegetable oils, etc. – rather than a religious-like adherence to one specific macronutrient distribution pattern regardless of individual activity levels, metabolic condition, or goals.
Why? Because 100% paleo eating (as it is most commonly defined) just doesn't account for variances in activity levels, individual metabolic factors, overall health, and the differences between average and elite physique or performance goals.
Starchy Carbs and Avoiding Skinny-Fat Syndrome
Animals and plants provide us with the essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, and micronutrients we need for survival and normal functioning. Everything else is about providing us with the energy we need to fuel our daily activities.
"Added fats" are an energy source, not an essential nutrient. This can be good or bad depending on your total calorie requirements and goals, and the composition of the rest of your diet. Starchy carbs are an energy source, not an essential nutrient. This can be good or bad depending on the type and amount of training you do. A healthy and active human body is adaptable and can do well on either one.
Low-carb diets are great for certain demographics – sedentary, obese, insulin resistant, etc. – thus they should be the default status for probably 70% of our population.
However, exercise creates a unique metabolic environment, an altered physiological state, and changes the way your body processes nutrients both during activity and for up to 48 hours after completion of a training session. If you train intensely three or more days a week, then your body is virtually in a recovery mode 100% of the time. It's in an altered physiological state 100% of the time and its nutritional needs are completely different than that of couch potato populations.
In a sports nutrition context, carbohydrates are thus considered conditionally essential. I do get that there's no such thing as an essential carbohydrate, but tell that to the guy who's combining high amounts of anaerobic training with no carbs and whose ding-dong has been lifeless for a year, or to the girl whose thyroid levels and metabolism are shot.
I believe starchy carb intake should be directly tied to your high-intensity, glycogen-burning activity levels. Fats should then be adjusted up or down accordingly to stay within your allotted calories. If the training program is different, the diet should be different. Beyond dietary dogmatic creeds, that's just common sense.
Related: Paleo: The Good, Bad and Ugly
The anaerobic energy production pathway runs on glucose/carbs. It can't use lipids or ketones. While the body can use fatty acids as fuel at rest (and the brain ketones), and even those who train only in the aerobic zone can become "fat adapted," high intensity muscular contractions require glucose.
Therefore, chronic carb depletion combined with anaerobic training can impair performance and eventually lead to muscle loss: skinny-fat syndrome. The body will break down amino acids as a reserve fuel to provide the necessary glucose to fuel high intensity activity. You know how they say fats and ketones are more "muscle sparing" than carbs? Not necessarily, when you factor in anaerobic training.
And low-carb diets combined with consistent high intensity activity can have a lot of metabolic, hormonal, and physiological drawbacks including impaired thyroid production, low Testosterone and sex drive, decreases in metabolic rate, muscle loss, skinny-fat syndrome, insomnia, depression, irritability, and low immunity.
For those who fear carbs during fat slashing phases, just remember that total calories are still the most important step. If you strength train while maintaining a relative calorie deficit, you can still include some starchy carbs in the diet while losing significant amounts of body fat.
The Hybrid Approach
Use the paleo diet as the baseline template for food choices, cutting out refined/processed foods and emphasizing animals and plants. Add back in some starchy foods to support your weight training. Try to minimize sugar, gluten, anti-nutrients, and toxic compounds. What you're left with is root vegetables (yams, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes) and white rice. Maybe you do okay with gluten or dairy, but a large percentage of people don't. Test and assess to see what works best.
For a simple educational template that's as easy to remember as the paleo diet, I recommend the traditional Japanese village diet, which consists of fish and meats, eggs, non-starchy vegetables, whole fruit, and rice and root vegetables.
I don't really care if that's historically or anthropologically accurate (i.e., what some village in 1678 actually ate versus what some village in another region in 1594 ate), it's only meant to be used as a simple tool to give people actionable strategies.
If you don't want to feel like you're "turning Japanese," the Irish Farmer's Diet (meat and potatoes), Okinawans' (pork, vegetables, and sweet potatoes), and Kitavans' (fish, fruit, and root vegetables) diets are other good examples and templates. Carb-based diets minus refined shit is the overall theme.
Take Home Message
The natural bodybuilding standard of a calorie deficit, sufficient protein, vegetables and whole fruits for micronutrients, moderate amounts of fat as by-product of animal protein sources, and some starch to support anaerobic training (adjusted up or down based on progress), combined with hypertrophy-based strength training is far superior for fat loss than the current trend of low carb, high-fat diets combined with cross-training and boot camps.
Find a Way to Win
I encourage you to take some personal accountability and self-experiment to find what works best. Don't be like a baby bird waiting to be fed whatever your mama regurgitates for you.
Maybe you consider that to be not taking a stance. Maybe you consider it bro-science. I consider it finding what works. And in terms of the true application of the scientific method, even research study conclusions really only give you steps one to three: question, hypotheses, and prediction. Every individual has to complete steps four and five – test and analyze – on their own.
You should use science and systems to give yourself an informed starting point, but don't dogmatically cling to anything, regardless of the source. Simply find a way to win.